The rain sort of stopped but with visibility still not good enough to see the entrance to Viti Levu Bay we decided to go ashore and make our sevusevu in Navuniivi village. The tide may not fall that far around Fiji (about 1.5 m on average) but it goes out a long way in so places. Here, already a couple of hours after high water, a hundred metres or so of flat black sand with shallow pools of seawater lay between the dinghy running aground and the shore! We dragged the dinghy towards an iron stake and tied it up, putting out the little anchor as a precaution. The local boats had an iron block with a hole at one end which went over the stake rather than an anchor at the end of the line, ingenious!
As we walked up the path a slaughtered cow in quarters was carried up past us, presumably the internal organs were in the coolbox that accompanied the as yet unskinned meat. The concrete path ended at the village green, a sloping expanse of trimmed grass that forms the centre of the community with the church, a couple of more substantial block built houses and the wooden village hall with its dark wood walls, lacy net curtains and green supporting posts dotted around the edges.
We were hailed from the verandah of the latter by Joe who turned out to be just the person we needed to see, the village headman. Shoes off, he led us across the woven mat floor to another verandah on the other side. There sat cross legged in their brightly patterned shirts and sulus on more grass mats it seemed were the whole over fifties male population of the village, the younger generations being occupied with butchering the beef. Turns out today was a wedding feast day, the actual wedding took place yesterday. We presented our yaqona and after the short ceremony, drank a cup of kava each. Then Joe and others moved from formal to social, eager to find out where we are from, introduce themselves and tell us about the great Fijian Olympic victory over England at rugby. I wondered if the poor bride realises that her wedding festivities are viewed by the menfolk more as a celebration of Fiji’s gold medal !
After a while we excused ourselves and walked up through the village, there is only so much kava one can drink, in my case one cup of the mouth numbing liquid. Many came out to shake hands and say bula. A small gang of seven or eight year olds followed us giggling up to the village boundary gate, beyond were tethered a couple of well groomed, branded horses one with a foal. The wide track that eventually leads around the bay to the town has a mostly stony surface but after all the recent rain was too muddy to contemplate a long walk.
On our way back we met Aquilla’s wife and some of her children, they thanked us again for the barracuda and we responded with more thanks for the vegetables. As they were smartly dressed we asked if they were attending the wedding, no they had just been to church as they are Seventh Day [Adventists]. A bit further down Aquilla now unrecognisable in a smart shirt, tie and oddly for a Fijian, long trousers beckoned us from a house next to the church. He is one of the leaders of the new Adventist congregation in the village and they had just finished their service, we were introduced to yet more smiling friendly faces, mostly ladies, everyone sitting on the floor. The actual house apparently belongs to a family currently in Sydney and as it has a spacious front room is being borrowed as a meeting place. The largest piece of furniture in the room was a huge flat screen tv covered in a floral cloth.
Kevin meanwhile had been asked if we wanted lunch so it was down to the village hall verandah once more. Two plates piled high with fish, curried chicken, pork, taro and sweet potato, topped with a large chunk of watermelon for dessert. No cutlery, just fingers; we tucked in with relish but then realised no one else was eating… On asking we were told the men drink kava that was enough, they would eat later if they weren’t asleep. We’d been given food as we are their guests, other plates piled with food were being ferried across the village by youngsters. At twelve noon everything stopped when a drum sounded elsewhere in the village. On the verandah the men bent their heads whilst someone prayed then they all joined in recieting something in Fijian before a final Amen. My neighbour explained they pray at noon, seven pm and at four am every day, akin I thought to monks. After prayers the verandah socialising continued.
It was a bit like being in a smoky pub in the UK on a Sunday. Everyone was well dressed even if they arrived in muddy wellies, left at the top step; I was the only woman present, the men were smoking, drinking kava and oddly, sucking on lollipops, occasionally chatting. Everything happened at a leisurely pace, there is only one kava cup per bowl. We learnt that all the school age children are weekly boarders at the school around the headland, there some forty odd families in the village of just over two hundred inhabitants. Their main income is from the coconut but they also sell fish and vegetables to make a little extra.
Cyclone Winston destroyed a few dozen houses and badly damaged many more as well as removing almost a third of the church roof and damaging the new electricity cables that were still under construction. The village had been expecting to have mains electricity this year but now they don’t know when it will arrive but Joe said they had paid their contribution of forty odd thousand Fijian dollars towards the project and it had been confirmed the electricity company would repair and complete the work, just not when. For now they continue as they always have with generators and solar power. Church repairs are expected to begin in November. There are no roads in the village, the only transport being long boats or horses.
As other men arrived there would be a round of handshaking and greetings, soon it seemed almost every male in the village was seated cross legged on the verandah matting. One half of the verandah seemed to be very serious about their kava drinking, gathered round a big wooden four-legged bowl, every cup drunk accompanied by the ritual clapping. On the other side of the steps there was another kava bowl, someone was busy pounding the yaqona root, another squeezing the resulting powder through a cloth bag in a bucket of water to produce the brownish grey unattractive liquid that is kava whilst Headman Joe and two others played guitars or ukulele and led the group that side in singing songs the men obviously knew well and loved. The harmonious, lilting songs are amazing, a real taste of the South Pacific. We were really made welcome and everyone spoke to us.
An hour or so later Kevin had consumed more kava than he wanted to, his lips and tongue numb from the narcotic. We took advantage of a pause in the music to take our leave. Even so as we walked back down the hill the ladies who had cooked lunch came to greet us, a shake of the hand, a name and a kiss on the cheek from each and everyone for each of us. Mrs Joe as she called herself invited us to her home but with my bread dough put to rise several hours earlier and a pause in the rain it was time we headed back to Temptress. These are indeed the Friendly Ilses and it would be very tempting to stay longer, no where in the Pacific have we had such a welcome and been made to feel so much part of the community. As Joe put it you are part of our village while you are here.